Issue No. 10 Extra

September 7th, 2010

Learning a Bit More About Dairy Goats and Sheep

Notes compiled by Susan Marquis
(Cheese Enthusiast web exclusive)

While researching the nature of goat’s and sheep’s milk and how their particular characteristics play out in cheesemaking, Cheese Enthusiast learned a great deal about the variety of dairy goat and sheep breeds. We couldn’t include this information in Cheese Enthusiast 10 but thought you might enjoy having this survey as part of our web offerings. Please let us know if we’ve missed a notable breed and any comments you have about any breed’s suitability for home or small cheesemaking.

Dairy Goat Breedsi

Nubians are one of the most popular breed of dairy goats in the United States. These charming goats with their long, floppy ears can be any color or pattern. They were developed in Britain in the 1890s by crossing domestic goats with long-legged goats imported from India, North Africa, and the Middle East. Nubians adapt well to heat. Their milk production is not as high as some other breeds but the percentage of fat in their milk is quite high, approaching 4.5 – 5.0%. Nubian milk is known for being one of the sweeter goat’s milks..ii .

Saanans are also quite popular in the US. They are a beautiful pure white with erect ears. Saanans originated in the Saane Valley of Switzerland and have the widest distribution throughout the world of any goat breed. Their milk production is quite high with approximately 3.5% fat. Saanans frequently set new world records for milk production but their milk is not viewed as being as sweet as Nubian or Alpines.

French Alpines//Swiss Alpines all originated in the mountain region along the Swiss/French border. They are also known as Chamoise in Europe ad Oberhasli in the United States. British Alpines are from related genes but are more distinctly colored, black with white legs. These goats have the highest average milk production of any breed, topping 2000 lbs a year at about 3.5% milkfat.

Toggenbergs were the first registered breed of animal, with their herd book established in Switzerland in the 1600s. Toggenbergs are sensitive to hot conditions. Toggenberg milk production approaches that of Saanans with about 3.2% butterfat. Like Saanans, Toggenbergs have a stronger tasting milk.

Murica-Granada are the primary dairy goats in Spain, and they are well-adapted to the dry, hot conditions of southern Spain. They produce a high volume of milk with long lactation periods.

LaMancha goats are a distinctly American breed. These animals look as though they are without ears and are a cross that includes Swiss Alpines and Nubians. They produce a bit more milk each year than Nubians with 3.9% of milkfat.

Finally, we need to look at the dwarf breeds. Both Nigerian Dwarf goats and African Pygmy goats were originally brought to the United States for zoos, the Nigerians in the 1980s and the African Pygmys in the 1950s. Both have become popular as pets but may also be milked. The African Pygmy goats are short and stocky. They have a very short lactation period of 4-6 months but can produce as much as 4 lbs of milk a day or 600-700 lbs of milk per lactation cycle.

Nigerian Dwarf goats are excellent milk producers for their size and their milk production is steadily increasing through breeding. They have tremendously high milk fat content, which has reached as high as 11.3%. They produce about a quart of milk per day, with long lactation periods for above 600 lbs per year. Interestingly, the Nigerian Dwarf was chosen to be part of the Biosphere 2 experiment where eight people were sealed for two years inside self-contained, mostly self-sufficient dome. The goat’s inclusion demonstrates the Nigerian Dwarf goat’s advantages for the home dairy and cheesemaker since they require far less space than a full size goat and produce a manageable amount of milk for a family. Several goats would obviously be required to have sufficient milk volume for cheesemaking.

Dairy Sheep Breeds

There are dozens of recognized dairy sheep breeds in the Europe and the Middle East. Several of these breeds have been brought to the United States for breeding but this has not always been an easy process.iii

Awassi sheep originated in the Middle East, bred by nomadic Bedouin for meat and milkiv. These sheep, as is common for Middle Eastern breeds, are most noted for their fatty tails that can weigh more than 40 lbs. and store energy for the dry, desert conditions. Awassi sheep have high volumes of milk with high butterfat and solids.

Chios is one of many Greek sheep breads, combining thin-tailed Zackel and Tsigai breeds with the fat-tailed Middle Eastern breeds.

Churra sheep are from the Catile and León regions in northwestern Spain. Churra milk is the foundation of Zamorano sheep cheese.

Comisana are distinctive for their reddish-brown facial markings and their Sicilian origins. Comisana provide milk for Pecorino Sicilian and are now being raised elsewhere in Italy.

East Friesian are the primary sheep raised at Rinconada Dairy (see lead story, CE 10). These short-tailed sheep are from the same region as Friesian cows, the border of Germany and the Netherlands. They produce high volumes of milk with long lactation periods. They are raised in northern Europe, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, usually in smaller flocks.

Lacaune are the milk producers for Roquefort cheese. They are without horns and their ears jut out, horizontal to the ground. They have been bred to increase their milk production and have become increasingly popular as dairy sheep.

There are many regional and protected breeds of sheep in Spain. Latxa sheep are raised for milk and meat in the southern Basque region. Latxa milk is used in Idiazábal cheese. Manchega sheep, not surprisingly, are milked to provide the milk for Spain’s Manchego cheese. They have been bred to thrive in the hot, dry summers of the central plains of the La Mancha region. Merino sheep are another Spanish breed, raised for wool but also the milk for Queso de la Serena and Torta del Casar.

Manech sheep are milked in the western Pyrenees on the French/Spain border and adjacent to the Basque region. Manech provide the milk for Ossau-Iraty cheese.

Sarda sheep are, of course, from Sardinia but are also raised in Tuscany. Their milk is used for the pecorino cheeses from each region.

Finally, Texel sheep are a Dutch breed from the island of Texel. They are extremely hardy in the face of cold and wind, bred to withstand the harsh North Sea environment. Oddly enough, their milk was once used to make a green (the color, not the age) Gouda-type cheese that was colored with sheep droppings. Cheese Enthusiast was shocked to learn that this cheese is no longer made (!!?!). Texel milk is still used to make schapenkaas cheese, listed as endangered by the Slow Food Ark of Taste.

iJerry Belanger, Storey’s Guide to Raising Goats, 2001, pp. 5-15. Studd, pp. 43-45.

iiGoat breed descriptions are from Belanger, pp. 1-15 and Will Studd, Cheese Slices., Nigerian dwarf goats are from Belanger and from the Nigerian Dwarf Goat Association website,

iiiSee Linda Faillace, Mad Sheep, 2006. This is a deeply disturbing tale of the large commercial dairy industry leading the charge to prevent the establishment of small dairies, facilitated by the US Department of Agriculture.

ivWe found Studd, pp. 44-45 provided the best descriptions for dairy sheep breeds.

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